Muslims flee as Serbs overrun Zepa

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sarajevo and SARAH HELM


Thousands of Muslim civilians and soldiers fled into the forests and hills of eastern Bosnia yesterday as the rebel Serb army marched unopposed into the small town of Zepa, the second UN "safe area" to be overrun in a fortnight.

As Western governments continued to wrangle about the precise terms of last Friday's ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs, the rebel commander, General Ratko Mladic, personally led his troops through the deserted streets of Zepa, once home to up to 17,000 Muslims. Gen Mladic and the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, were formally charged with "genocide and crimes against humanity" yesterday by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

The Bosnian government in Sarajevo, while denying that its beleaguered outpost had fallen entirely, demanded that the UN act to prevent the kind of atrocities reported after the fall of Srebrenica. It called on the international community to use force, if necessary, to rescue thousands of civilians, believed to be hiding in caves and forests in the uncaptured north-eastern part of the enclave.

It has been clear for several days that Western governments had written off Zepa and nothing would be done to prevent the Serb advance. But confusion reigned yesterday over the exact nature of the warnings given by the West to the Bosnian Serbs last weekend.

Diplomatic sources and the US Secretary of Defense, William Perry, have suggested that Nato would take retaliatory action if the Bosnian Serbs continued assaults on any of the remaining "safe areas'', including Sarajevo and Bihac. But Britain's Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, said yesterday that the warning of retaliatory air strikes "specifically" applied only to Gorazde in eastern Bosnia, where more than 300 British UN soldiers are based.

Ambassadors from the 16 Nato nations were close to an agreement last night to sharpen the air strike threat against the Bosnian Serbs by giving military commanders full authority to call warplanes into action in defence of remaining UN "safe areas." They were meeting into the night to finalise a text that would remove the right of UN civilian authorities to block air strikes requested by the military if the Gorazde safe area is attacked. Instead, air strikes would be decided jointly by UN military commanders on the ground and Nato's Southern Europe commander, US Admiral Leighton W Smith.

Suspicions are increasing, meanwhile, that the French government engaged in a clandestine freelance air strike on the Bosnian Serb capital, Pale, on Sunday, in retaliation for the killing of two French soldiers. US officials told the New York Times they believed three French aircraft took part in the air raid, a claim denied in Paris.

A convoy of 150 seriously wounded people moved out of Zepa last night in Serb vehicles, escorted by Ukrainian peace-keepers and bound for Sara- jevo. A second UN convoy, including ambulances, left the capital to collect more wounded from Zepa. Lt-Gen Rupert Smith, the British UN commander in Bosnia, met Gen Mladic several times yesterday in and around Zepa to discuss the evacuation of civilians.

Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Prime Minister, demanded that peace-keepers ensure a safe withdrawal of civilians from Zepa and action to save Bihac.